The Lord's Day Evening
June 7, 2005
“The Syrophoenician Woman”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Turn with me in your Bibles to Matthew 15, and we will be reading in a moment from verse 21 through to verse 28. We begin tonight a series of sermons, studies of encounters that Jesus had with various people. It's designed to be a series that particularly focuses on evangelism, and focusing particularly on various kinds of people who put their faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. These are Brief Encounters that Jesus had with various people.
Tonight we're going to see an extraordinary encounter that Jesus had with a woman, a woman who was very distressed, a woman weighed down with care and a burden that many of you tonight can relate to…especially mothers can relate to tonight. This is a woman who was burdened about her young daughter, her little child who is sick. In the Gospels she is described as being possessed of a demon, and no further explanation is given whether that was a physical distress that she was manifesting (probably it was), and probably also some kind of psychological side effects associated with that. It's not the disease itself and it's not the affliction itself…it's the burden of this mother, and where do you turn? We sang in church this morning, “What a friend we have in Jesus.” All our griefs and sorrows He carries, He bears… What a privilege it is to bring everything, all of our trials and tribulations to the Lord in prayer. We sang that hymn this morning. Well, tonight we are going to look into a story that tells us just that.
Now before we read the passage together, let's look to God in prayer.
Father, we bow in Your presence. We are a needy people. We are conscious tonight that without You we can do nothing. We’re conscious, O Lord, that we live in a world full of cares and worries and sorrows and trials and tribulations. All around us and even here amongst us tonight (and it may be we ourselves) we come with this huge burden that weighs us down, that robs us of sleep, that disengages us from so many other things in this world, and we are totally focused on this one thing that troubles us. And so tonight, O Lord, we pray for the ministry of Your word — Your word which brings life, Your word which brings healing, Your word which brings a peace that passes all understanding, Your word which introduces us to a friend who sticks closer to us than a brother. So help us now as we turn to the Scriptures. Come, Holy Spirit, open up the word to us. Make it alive and fresh. And grant, O gracious God, that we might see none but Jesus only, for it is in His name that we ask it. Amen.
Verse 21 of Matthew chapter 15:
“And Jesus went away from there…”
[And the there, you have to go all the way back to verse 34 of the previous chapter where Jesus has come into the land of Gennesaret. Now Gennesaret is on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, and in a minute we are going to follow Him as He travels northwest all the way to the Mediterranean coast, about 40-50 miles, first of all to Tyre and then all the way up the coast another 20-25 miles or so to Sidon. So He's here on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, and He's moving northwest to the Mediterranean coast. So…]
“Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, ‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.’ But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came and begged Him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And He answered, ‘It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”
Amen. May God bless to us that reading of His word.
Now we're all familiar with concerned mothers. I've just come back from Britain, just in the last couple of days, and I visited my mother. My mother is 81. She was in hospital ten days ago with suspected cardiac issues. We called and said we would be leaving Heathrow Airport in the morning, early-ish, and we’d be there about lunchtime. So what did my mother do? She got on the bus at seven in the morning, went into town, did some shopping, bought some food and came home on the bus in order that her 57-year-old son would have a proper meal! She's a concerned mother. What can I say?
Here in this story you have a concerned mother. She's concerned about her little girl. Some of you — and in fact, a number of you — can enter in in a remarkable way tonight to what this woman is going through. You've been there. You've had those nights in which you could not sleep, nights in hospital, nights contemplating yet another surgery, nights in which you didn't know which way to turn, nights filled with worry–worry over what may happen, worry over what may eventuate. It's a familiar scene, isn't it? It's seen all over the land. It's seen in countless numbers of homes represented here tonight. You’re concerned about your children — your children who are unwell, your children who are not performing as they should, your children that are demonstrating signs of deep concern.
There are a number of obstacles facing this woman. First of all, geography. Tyre and Sidon is technically outside the boundaries of Israel. It had been promised originally to Israel, but they had never really conquered Tyre and Sidon. It was way up in the northwest on the Mediterranean coast. Tyre was at one time an offshore island, and it was Alexander the Great who, in a massive landfill (or a sea fill) project brought that island, as it were, as part of the mainland where they built the city of Tyre. Sidon was about twenty miles to the north. This is foreign country. There's a link, do you see, with what we've been doing with missions tonight, because this is missions. This is Jesus stepping outside of Israel, outside of His covenant people. He's going to those who are outside of the covenant.
During the Maccabean revolt — now…well, I won't go into all the details, but the Maccabean revolt took place during the second century B.C., and it was a revolt of the Jews against the occupiers of the land at that point known as the Seleucids. The only thing that you need to remember tonight is that Tyre and Sidon were on the wrong side of that revolt. They did not fight with the Jews. They fought against the Jews.
You know, folk in the South have long memories! You know that. Somebody was telling me this week of a young man. He was going off to look at colleges — rather late in the day, but he was going off to look at colleges, and he had just made a visit to a college in Pennsylvania. He was from Alabama, and it was his first time into “the black North,” as he called it. [Laughter.] He's — what? — seventeen? Maybe eighteen? It was his first visit to foreign territory. People have long memories, and the Jews had long memories about Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon were enemies.
Not only that, you see, but she's a Gentile. Do you know what the Jews called Gentiles? The text tells us. “Dogs.” She has all kinds of obstacles. There's an issue of race: she's a Syrophoenician. She's not “one of us.” She's an outsider. She lives in a foreign part. She's an enemy. And she's a woman. Yes. This isn't 2009, now, folks. This is the first century. You know, almost every Jew in the first century prayed a prayer on a daily basis — men, that is — giving thanks to God that they were not created women. That was a daily prayer in the first century. Christianity changed all that. Christianity emancipated women from that bondage. It is Paul who writes in Galatians that in Christ there is neither male nor female. Don't ever forget that. It was Paul who wrote those words that in Jesus Christ there is neither male nor female. But Paul hasn't written those words yet, and as far as Jesus’ disciples are concerned she was an enemy. She was a foreigner and she was a woman — and a noisy one, at that.
Do you notice as we read this text together just how difficult…just how difficult (hear me, now!) Jesus made it for her? She comes with this extraordinary burden, this heart-rending burden for her daughter: “Have mercy on me,” she says to Jesus. And He ignores her. He says not a word. Have you ever been ignored? Oh, yes, you have! You've gone into a store and someone was having a bad day behind the desk and ignored you. And you felt insulted. You've been a little annoyed, and maybe if things got the better of you, you actually said so. Imagine this. This is Jesus we're talking about now, and He ignores her. He says not a word. So she goes to Plan B: she asks the disciples. And what do the disciples say? Well, they go to Jesus and they say, “Send her away. She's just being a nuisance. She's making all this noise and commotion. We can barely think. Lord, send her away!” (Meaning, “She's not one of us.”) And then Jesus says, “I was sent for the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel.” Now that's true, of course. He had come for the Jews; He had come for His people. Now His people rejected Him, of course, but He had come first of all for the Jews. And she kneels. She falls down upon her knees, and she says to Jesus, “Lord, help me.” And you think now the heart of Jesus would be broken, but He says, “It is not right to cast the children's bread and give it to dogs.” Extraordinary! Takes your breath away! If this wasn't the Bible, you’d say I was making this up! This is Jesus!
So many obstacles to coming to faith in Jesus Christ…disciples who want rid of her…disciples who are saying “Send her away”…God, who seems to be ignoring her. And then a word seems to sound so exclusive, that the gospel is only for the lost sheep of Israel.
My dear friend, is that you tonight? You want to believe, but there are so many obstacles to believing. You’re married to someone who isn't a believer, and you can't even contemplate the consequences of putting your faith in Jesus Christ because your spouse is totally against it. There are all sorts of obstacles, all sorts of criteria that emerge in the course of our existence that prevent us from coming to Jesus and putting our faith in Jesus Christ. This woman is facing the most extraordinary obstacles. But, my dear friends, she is a trophy. She's a trophy. All these obstacles, you see, have one aim. They are a test. Jesus is putting her to the test. He's putting her to the test to bring out of her genuine faith of the most extraordinary kind.
Do you notice what she does? You know, when Jesus says, “It is not right to cast the children's bread and give it to the dogs…” (Now, yes, in the Greek there are two words for dogs, and one refers to wild bad dogs, and one refers to my pet dog. And it's possible that Jesus is using the milder of the tow, but however way you paint it…however way you paint it, to refer to her as a dog.) And you notice what she does? She agrees. She doesn't take the hump, she doesn't get all aerated. She doesn't throw a tantrum. She doesn't throw — what do you call it? — a hissy fit. She says, ‘Yes, Lord. Okay. But even the dogs may eat of the crumbs that fall from the master's table.’ You have dogs who lie underneath the table when you’re eating? If you don't, you’re not in the same world as me! [Laughter.]
Someone was telling me yesterday at the wedding — there was a wedding yesterday — and somebody was telling me at the wedding that they have a Labrador and their children are at that stage where it's the “uh-oh” stage. You know, it's a hot dog and it falls on the floor — “Uh-oh!” And it's gone. You know, the Labrador's eaten it. And if you have a Labrador underneath the kitchen table, you don't need a vacuum cleaner! It does all of that for you. What an extraordinary thing for her to say. I mean, extraordinary, because you’d think, wouldn't you (I mean, let's be honest tonight)...most of us here would be offended by what Jesus has just said. And she agrees with Him, and she says, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs may eat of the crumbs that fall from the masters’ table.” She won't take no for an answer.
You know, Cyril of Alexandria once said (a figure from the early church) that we should so pray so as to make God ashamed if He doesn't answer us. Now that's bold, isn't it? We should so pray as to make God ashamed if He doesn't answer us. You know, I have a notion that's what this woman is doing. It's almost as though she's saying to Jesus, ‘Shame on you if you don't answer my plea!’ when she gets down on her knees and she begs Him, ‘Lord, have mercy on me! And shame on You if you don't.’ You know, it's hard to know how much she knew about Jesus. Not as much as you, I think. She had perhaps heard of Him, if she’d made a trek and heard Jesus on one of His itinerary preaching tours in northern Galilee. She didn't have a Bible. She knew nothing of the New Testament. She knew nothing of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ alone apart from the works of the law. But she knew this much: that the answer to her problem, the answer to her predicament lay in one person and in one person alone. There was only one who could answer her predicament: it was Jesus. It was this one standing right in front of her there and then. And no matter what the obstacles, no matter what the difficulties, she persevered. She would not take no for an answer. She believes, you see, however small the evidence might seem to be. And Jesus says of her, ‘Your faith is great. Your faith is great.’ She abandons everything and lays hold of what at first seems to be only a glimmer of hope: that if Jesus was first, as the parallel account in Mark says, sent to the lost sheep of the tribe of Israel, there was at least some hope that in the second place Jesus was sent for those who are not of Israel, and, therefore, for her.
You see, this passage tonight is saying to us…well, in the first place it's a rebuke to those of us who are Christians. It's a rebuke for what is often our prejudice about people who are not like us, and not of us…from a different race, who smell, whose clothes are funny, who speak with a funny accent and we dismiss them. And tell me if this is not so: tell me that we don't say with the disciples from time to time, ‘Lord, send them away. Send them away, because they’re just a nuisance.’
But this passage is teaching something else, and it's saying this: Anyone can come to Jesus and find mercy — anyone. “Come unto Me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” That's Jesus’ word to you tonight. You may be a concerned mother just like this Syrophoenician woman, and Jesus is saying to you, my friend, “Come unto Me. Bring your burden, bring your trial, bring your predicament, bring the sense that no one understands you, and come to Jesus and you will find in Him a friend who sticks closer to you than a brother. You’ll find in Him everything…everything…forgiveness of sins, a new life, new fellowship, new vitality, a sense of life that you've never had before. And you can do that now in the quietness of your hearts:
“Just as I am, without one plea,
but that Thy blood was shed for me;
and that Thou bidst me come to Thee.
O Lamb of God, I come.”
Come to Jesus as this woman came to Jesus. Against all kinds of obstacles, she would not hear no. And you’ll find, my friend, the open arms of Jesus saying, “Come, come.”
Our Father, we thank You for the Scriptures. Thank You for this word. Thank You for the gospel. Thank You that there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared. Bless this word to all of our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
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